Mizanur Rahman welcomes Antony Lerman’s new book on the ‘new antisemitism’ and the use of the concept against supporters of Palestine

Saturday 12 September 2015 was a date that changed the political landscape and sent shockwaves throughout the British Establishment. Jeremy Corbyn, a left-wing Labour MP, became the leader of the Labour Party. Jeremy, an anti-imperialist, socialist and a life-long antiracist campaigner, was also a supporter of the Palestinian people and their struggle for self-determination. What was also notable during his tenure as Labour Leader was that the issue of antisemitism within the Labour Party started to gain mainstream attention, starting on 28 April 2016 when ex-Labour MP John Mann attacked the former Mayor Ken Livingstone for his comments on Hitler and Zionism. This was the start of a media campaign which focussed on the Labour antisemitism accusations and did not stop until Jeremy Corbyn stepped down as Labour Leader after the 2019 General Election.

As someone who was involved in the Harrow East Labour Party CLP during that time, the author can confirm how the issue of antisemitism used against Jeremy Corbyn was splitting the political left. Some groups insisted that it was all a concocted campaign by Israel due to Jeremy’s commitment to Palestinian rights, and others downplayed the role of pro-Israeli organisations, and essentially went along with the campaign over antisemitism, which meant that some left-wing groups would accuse others on the left of antisemitism. But underneath this confusion lay a fundamental misunderstanding of what antisemitism is and the politics of antisemitism itself, and thanks to this, the Corbyn years left more questions than answers. The main question that many on the left did not want to answer was this: Does the Israeli government play a significant role in the debate about antisemitism?

Enter Antony Lerman

A senior fellow at the Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue in Vienna and Honorary Fellow of the Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/non-Jewish relations at Southampton University, Dr Lerman has over three decades of experience around antisemitism as a subject of study. I first came across Lerman at the UK book launch of On Anti-Semitism: Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice (Haymarket 2017), where he spoke about his time at the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (IJPR), an independent thinktank in Britain, and his experiences in dealing with Mossad agents who wanted to influence the IJPR’s work. With this understanding, I knew that Lerman’s new book, Whatever Happened to Antisemitism? Redefinition and the Myth of the ‘Collective Jew’, would be an essential read to understand this subject better.

The Antisemitism industry and the birth of new antisemitism

In this book, Lerman paints the bigger picture and maps out the various organisations involved in the antisemitism monitoring industry. Central to the book is his own personal experiences at the IJPR, dealing with Israeli state pressure, writing:

‘The Israeli government was not interested in objective assessments. It was determined to exert centralised control of the monitoring of antisemitism worldwide and was using antisemitism as a crude mobilising tool for Zionism and Aliya [emigration to Israel]’ (p.96).

The book gives a chronological overview of the development of the antisemitism monitoring industry, specifically in the period after the 70s. Although there was no legalistic definition of what constituted antisemitism for a long while, all of the groups involved in the field were united in a broad understanding of what it constituted, but this began to change when pro-Israeli interests started to take control of the debate, as Lerman writes:

‘In Israel, a new agency had been established in 1988, The Israeli Government Monitoring Forum on Antisemitism, with the aim of implementing a new policy putting Israel at the head of international Jewish efforts to combat antisemitism … By 1992, not only had international Jewish cooperation on monitoring antisemitism increased, so too had competition over assessing and determining the narrative about what was happening. And with competition came two kinds of increasing politicisation of the issue. First, a struggle among Jewish organisations as to who exerted the most influence over public understanding of the threat antisemitism posed. And the second, an increasingly charged debate about the relationship between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, and whether, if they were synonymous, it necessitated being called ‘new antisemitism’ (p.65).

Lerman notes how, in the 90s, the debate around antisemitism took an increasingly right-ward turn as, by the time of the second intifada, pro-Israeli interests were starting to take centre stage in the antisemitism debate, due to the involvement of organisations like the Israeli government’s Monitoring Forum on Antisemitism, and its current iteration, the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP).

Truth as a casualty of war

The ascension of pro-Israeli interests in the study of antisemitism isn’t something that happened automatically. In what was later to play out in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, many Jewish academics and organisations who had a different perspective from the pro-Israeli organisations on the issue of antisemitism and/or Palestine were either side-lined or co-opted:

‘Through the Mossad and the Israeli Government Monitoring Forum, considerable pressure was being exerted on Jewish communal defence and antisemitism monitoring bodies to cooperate with each other and avoid working with non-Jewish groups or individuals unless they were approved by Israeli officials’ (p.109).

Lerman’s book provides the necessary vocabulary to understand the nature of the relationship between the state of Israel and the various antisemitism monitoring organisations. Many people have been accused of antisemitism for stating that certain organisations are taking orders directly from Israel, an assertion which is accused of being related to racist images of a Jewish cabal or elite in control of world events. While it is not a simple issue of direct control, Lerman does show how the Israeli state, through its organs such as the Monitoring Forum or ISGAP, has attempted to manage the antisemitism industry. It has moved to ensure that its interests are placed at the centre of the agenda wherever it can. By the turn of the millennium, a gradual consensus emerged within Jewish communal organisations about anti-Zionism being the new form of antisemitism, as a direct consequence. Lerman’s analysis shows how those organisations which adopted the view of there being a new antisemitism are able to act independently, free from the direct influence of the Israeli government, so as long as they adhere to this emerging pro-Israeli consensus.

A transnational field of racial governance

Lerman makes it clear that redefining antisemitism to mean anti-Zionism isn’t just being used to shield Israel from its various human-rights abuses, but it is also used to suppress the Palestinian liberation struggle. He goes on to explain that those who adhere to the view of the new antisemitism are more politically motivated than those who don’t, as he explains:

‘Those following “new antisemitism” theory are far more politically engaged and networked than those who are not convinced by, or openly oppose, “new antisemitism” theory’ (p.145).

Organisations who support the new antisemitism theory should be seen, primarily, as political organisations rather than grassroots anti-racist organisations. Instead of challenging antisemitism, these organisations aim to challenge the narrative on the Israel-Palestine conflict and, for some, this means challenging those communities who align themselves with the Palestinians, as was the case with the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism (YIISA):

‘From its inception, Small [its director] made it clear that YIISA would promote the notion of “new antisemitism”, focus heavily on criticism of Israel and prioritise the issue of “Muslim antisemitism”’ (p.140).

While describing the opposition to the EUMC’s (European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia) definition of antisemitism, Lerman writes:

‘It followed from their [the EUMC] rejection of the notion of the “new antisemitism” that they believed the demand for a redefinition was precisely in order to define anti-Israel speech by Muslims and the left as antisemitic’ (p.165).

This book settles the debate for the left around the politicisation of antisemitism and whether it has been used against the left. The consensus around the ‘new antisemitism’ means that the interests of the state of Israel play a central role in the debate, and with this understanding, pro-Israeli antisemitism monitoring organisations are able to act on their own accord and challenge all those who stand for Palestinian rights. Whatever Happened to Antisemitism? shows you the broader picture in regard to the politics of antisemitism. The book does not therefore cover in detail the activities of pro-Israeli organisations during the Corbyn years, but provides a framework for understanding how the issue of antisemitism was weaponised against the Labour left.

Nevertheless, we, as the left, cannot imagine that the problem has gone away with the defeat of Corbyn. If another left-wing political leader does arise, who challenges imperialism, the British foreign policy consensus, or shows solidarity with Palestinians, the issue of antisemitism will rise again. This time we will have to do better to face the challenge. It is my belief that the political left is in the best position to challenge all forms of racism including antisemitism, but in order to not just challenge antisemitism, but also challenge those who politicise antisemitism, we will all need to understand both antisemitism and the politics of antisemitism. Reading this book and other works by Dr Antony Lerman would be a good place to start.

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